Edward Dwight’s early 1990s design for a Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial on the National Mall, never realized. Courtesy National Park Service.
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. So any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.
That is the opening paragraph of “A Talk to Teachers,” an essay James Baldwin published in The Saturday Review in December 1963. Here is a second one, the opening paragraph of Baldwin’s 1961 book Nobody Knows My Name:
America’s history, her aspirations, her peculiar triumphs, her even more peculiar defeats, and her position in the world—yesterday and today—are all so profoundly and stubbornly unique that the very word “America” remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun. No one in the world seems to know exactly what it describes, not even we motley millions who call ourselves Americans.
I believe that not only are these two paragraphs very related to one another, they are very related to us in our time and place. What makes these times just so dangerous, as they did in the early 1960s for the civil rights activists who challenged white supremacy, is that “Americans” (at least the ones in power) seem to be sure that they know the true identity, the true definition of “an American.” They harbor no doubts. It doesn’t seem controversial or undefined. When pressed, they would have difficult time actually unpacking that definition; rather, who or what makes up “an American” seems is largely impressionistic, hazy and untethered, tied to senses and symbols. But, for a segment of the American —one that is a minority in numbers but a majority in political power—there are few doubts. They know who belongs—and who does not. And that is where the menace still lives.
We battle a renewed, vigorous nationalism in our classrooms. The polarization seems to be emboldening the resistance that Baldwin notes. Some of it is new, stemming from the frustrations and pains of a globalized economy that Baldwin’s America had not yet experienced, but much of it is exactly what he was talking about: white supremacy.
But, as Baldwin says in his rallying cry to 1963’s teachers, we have to be prepared in 2019 to “go for broke.” We can’t give up. Now, what I’m about to say may strike some of you as a straw man. But, I think one of the things we can’t give up on is telling stories about the founding of the United States.
You may respond with eye rolls, that what that really means is a call to continue telling stories about white guys. Or you may respond: BORING. We know all those stories. Our students know all those stories. It’s time to move on. I’m saying neither of those things. In fact, that’s what I’d like to address: that we know everything there is to know about the founding, and therefore our energies would be better placed elsewhere. That our focus on the nation has run its course.
I’m convinced that kind of thinking is not only short-sighted, but rather dangerous. I don’t suggest that we should not be making global connections or broadening our vision to see many other people and hear their voices. We certainly should. Placing the American founding in the context of the Age of Revolutions, seeing how the new republic operated in an unstable world, and how American commercial networks were really global networks: This is all very important work. But if that assumption stems from the notion that we know all there is to know about the founding of the United States, that’s trouble.
Indulge me to share a bit of my experience with this. I first started the research that resulted in my first book, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, in 2001. Over the fifteen years it took me to complete that book, which argued that patriot leaders cultivated and amplified stories about enslaved and native peoples working with the British to galvanize the American public to fight the Revolutionary War, I heard how this was really a presentist project. When I explained to people at conferences or at job interviews what my interpretation was, I got the following responses over those fifteen years:
- Oh, that’s a book about 9/11.
- Oh, that’s a book about the Patriot Act.
- Oh, that’s a book about John Ashcroft and his terror threat levels.
- Oh, that’s a book about the Iraq War.
- Oh, that’s a book about the Tea Party backlash to Barack Obama.
- Oh, that’s a book about Donald Trump.
The truth is, none of those things mattered to me. The argument and interpretation of The Common Cause came from reading newspapers ON MICROFILM, one frame at a time, one squeaky turn of the wheel at a time.
What I found there blew me away. It wasn’t what I expected to find at all. There was a vast amount of material in those pages about enslaved and native peoples. How many other people had started their research on the Revolution with the newspapers? Dozens? Hundreds? Why was I so surprised at the tremendous amount of evidence I was finding? The thickness of the archive still astounds me. One of the main reasons why The Common Cause was 700 pages long was because it was the best way to honor and convey the sheer size—the amount, the bulk—of the stories I had found in the papers.
What I did find was a lot of political leaders—guys like John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Laurens, Alexander Hamilton, Tom Paine, and Benjamin Franklin—thinking about, writing about, and trying to craft policy about African Americans and native peoples. They spread lots and lots of stories—some true, some exaggerated, many uncorroborated, a few entirely fabricated—about enslaved and native peoples working with the British to subvert the American Revolution and destroy the infant republic. At the bottom of those stories was a use of fear to mobilize people to take up arms against their enemies.
The deployment of that fear is what made people assume over the past fifteen years that this was really an interpretation of our time, not their time. And, as Baldwin knew too well, that deployment of fear has been synonymous with race throughout American history, and it started in 1775.
But that wasn’t what I remembered reading about the founding or the founders before, certainly not to the degree that I had discovered in those newspapers. The scale was boggling. Patriot leaders thought about enslaved and native peoples constantlyduring the same time they crafted constitutions and wrote declarations of independence. That discovery meant that the so-called Founding Fathers and the founding itself looked completely different to me.
Analyzing the mechanics of the “common cause” appeal made me realize anew how complicated the Revolution was. It reminded me how process matters so much, and how processes can subvert some of your best intentions. For many of those patriot leaders, like Benjamin Rush or Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine, considered themselves to be opponents of slavery. Yet, they helped perpetuate it—and in far more destructive ways than just refusing to speak against it. They gave rise to a new, founding narrative of American patriotism, one based on the exclusion of African Americans and Indians as being enemies of the American people.
All this is to say, maybe we haven’t completely figured out “the Founding” yet. As heavy as those bookshelves are, I would argue that we should still be at work. Do we have to tell those same tired stories that feature the same tired subjects? Absolutely not. But if we leave telling stories about the Founding to people who promote a brittle, fragile American nationalism—the latest expounders of that exclusionary, vicious “common cause” appeal that was born out of fear in 1775 and continues to this day—we do ourselves a disservice as professionals and as citizens, either of the United States or of the planet.
We cannot leave so important a subject as the creation of the United States on the table for others less qualified, less open-minded, and less empathetic to seize. We are often faced with a notion that criticism of the United States is treason talk. But what we need to keep working on—in the archives and in our classrooms—is to celebrate and revel in the unknowing that Baldwin says makes America great: its defeats as well as triumphs, its being completely undefined and extremely controversial. We can celebrate the interstices and hold both of the impulses of the Revolutionaries in our minds at the same time: the expressions of human freedom, universal rights, and the pursuit of happiness on the one hand, and the uses of fear, the manipulation of inflammatory rhetoric, and the inscribing of racial exclusivity into that new republic on the other. We can do both. We have to do both.
James Baldwin wrote over and over again about American nationalism, American identity, and American history. He couldn’t bring himself to give up on it, even though he had every right to. Baldwin noted with bitter irony that African American children were (are) forced to pledge allegiance to the United States when the United States never pledged its allegiance to them.
And yet, he didn’t give up on it. He held out hope that if we could face our history, we could overcome it. This is an essential project. But it does pose some risk. I’m not encouraging us to be scolds. Scolds begin from the operating principle of thinking they know better. Scolds are by definition off-putting. We cannot afford to put anyone off.
That means we have to tell both sides of the story, the promises realized and dashed. The successes as well as the failures. The energies released by the American Revolution were both creative and destructive. These are stories worth telling in their fullest capacity. Especially in these very dangerous times.
 James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” originally published in The Saturday Review (Dec. 21, 1963) in James Baldwin: Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York, 1998), 678‒86, quote on 678.
 James Baldwin, “The Discovery of What it Means to Be an American,” in Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son , in Baldwin: Collected Essays, ed. Morrison, 135‒285, quote on 137.